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This question is somewhat two-fold. I am in the process of creating a high-level Barbarian and am trying to determine if it makes more sense to take use dual weapons and capitalize on the additional damage that rage deals versus using great weapons, which benefit more from crits.

The Barbarian's primal path is Zealot, so he has a revolving door with death. For the purposes of race, we are taking advantage of the revolving door and using the Reincarnate spell liberally. From our Session 0, the character has died and been reincarnated 3 times and is currently a human. I've encouraged the DM to kill this character whenever he wants and we'll reincarnate him as something else. To simplify the complexities of changing race constantly, we are using the following house rules for reincarnation:

  • Retain your original race's stat bonuses, you lose all the other features.
  • Gain the features of your new race, but none of the stat bonuses.

Currently, the character is a human, but his original incarnation was half-elf. Due to the everchanging nature of his race, assume for the purposes of assessing this, that racial features that improve damage, like Savage Attacks, aren't applicable since the character could get Worfed at anytime.

The following assumptions should be considered:

  • The character does NOT have the the Dual Wielder feat.
  • The character does NOT have the Great Weapon Master feat.
  • If dual wielding, the character would use a weapon that dealt 1d6 in the main hand and 1d6 in the off-hand (I don't believe there are any light weapons capable of dealing more than 1d6 damage).
  • Character has 18 Strength.
  • For the purposes of damage calculation, assume the character is raging.
  • No multi-classing.
  • Almost always fighting recklessly for Advantage.
  • Assume the character's race is not one that provides a bonus to damage or critical damage (like half-orcs)
  • Do not account for plusses due to magic weapons.
  • ASIs are used in a manner that doesn't increase damage. For example, on boosting Con or Dex. Or on feats that don't increase damage.
  • Strength adjustments at level 20 should be considered since it is a class feature.

With those assumptions in mind, can someone advise me on which fighting style, on average, deals more damage per round considering the damage bonuses from the Barbarian class features? If the damage optimization changes, at what levels does that occur?

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  • 6
    \$\begingroup\$ Will this character ever be a small race? Small creatures and heavy weapons don't mix well. \$\endgroup\$ – Derek Stucki Sep 11 '17 at 21:08
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Dual wield

2 main hand attacks + 1 off-hand attack = 2*(d6+7)+(d6+3), expected value = 27.5

Expected number of criticals is 0.2925 a turn, with +3d6 (ev.=10.5) damage, +3.07 overall.

Two-handed

Assuming you use a greatsword or maul: 2 attacks = 2*(2d6+7), expected value = 28

Expected number of criticals is 0.195 a turn, with +3d6 (ev.=10.5) damage, +2.05 overall.

Assuming you use a greataxe: 2 attacks = 2*(d12+7), expected value = 27

Expected number of criticals is 0.195 a turn, with +3d12 (ev.=19.5) damage, +3.8 overall.

On later levels

On level 16 and 17 you get another Brutal die and +1 to rage damage. On level 20, you get +2 to your STR modifier. Accounting for this and adding in criticals directly:

\begin{array}{|c|c|} \hline & lv13 & lv17 & lv20\\ \hline 2x\ light& 30.57 & 34.59 & 38.59 \\ \hline g.sword & 30.05 & 32.73 & 36.73\\ \hline g.axe & 30.80 & 34.07 & 38.07\\ \hline \end{array}

So the damage starts similar, but starts to lean towards dual wielding at the end because of the big flat modifiers. But using two weapons will consume your bonus action too. Meaning you cannot use an off-hand attack on the turn you enter your rage. Also, if you are not completely ready for a fight you will need to draw both weapons to get this output. So you will lose an attack on the first turn of any fight. That is 13.5 damage + criticals on level 20. For the 0.52 difference in dmg/turn to balance this out you need to attack for over 26 turns after the first one. A battle this long is quite unlikely. For these reasons I am of the opinion that using a greataxe will be better.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Aug 2 at 5:19
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Frame challenge: both.

As can be seen in the other answers, the difference in damage output is relatively small in a vacuum. However, combat in D&D rarely takes place in a vacuum (and if it does, your bigger concern would probably be breathing). I see nothing in your situation that gives you a reason to permanently choose one or the other. I suggest you carry both. The various situations likely to be encountered by your barbarian will create more of a difference in your ability to kill foes than exists between the two styles in a vacuum.

Therefore, I suggest that the better question for your explained situation is under what situations should my barbarian use one style or the other?

Two weapon fighting is probably better if:

  • You are currently a small race. Disadvantage with heavy weapons makes them far less effective.

  • Low hit point enemies. If they die in one hit from either, killing three per round is far better than killing two per round.

  • The combat is likely to last a long time.

  • Damaging more than one enemy is desirable, such as attacking trolls with flaming weapons.

Great weapons are better if:

  • The combat is short, but you still want to rage, due to losing a bonus action attack the first round with two weapon fighting.

  • Bigger hits are desirable, such as against zombies.

  • You can obtain exactly one magical weapon for your character (perhaps one ally can cast the magic weapon spell) when fighting enemies with resistance or immunity to non-magical weapons.

  • You are currently a half-orc. (You said to ignore this, but this answer is a frame challenge.)

  • Your opponent has a very high AC, as a greater percentage of hits will be crits, thus favoring the larger die.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ How did I miss this answer? Arrggh. I needed it for a link to an answer I wrote the other day. I really like your approach here. And, it's linked. Thank you, two years too late. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Aug 8 at 14:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ "You are currently a half-orc". I love the phrasing. \$\endgroup\$ – leinaD_natipaC Nov 26 at 15:40
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This does not address miss chances and assumes all attacks hit. Basic calcs are as follows:

  • Crit chance for a single attack with advantage is: 1-[(1-0.05)*(1-0.05)]=0.0975; therefore 9.75% chance.
  • Iterative attacks have a crit chance of: 1-[(1-0.0975)*(1-0.0975)...]
  • Therefore, 2 attacks have an 18.55% chance; 3 attacks have 26.5% chance.
  • Average die damage from a d6 weapon is 3.5.
  • Average die damage from a 2d6 weapon is 7.0.
  • Average die damage from a d12 weapon is 6.5.

tl;dr table:

\begin{array}{|c|c|} \hline & lv2 & lv5 & lv9 & lv13 & lv16 & lv17 & lv20\\ \hline 2x\ light& 15.65 & 25.43 & 29.36 & 30.28 & 33.28 & 34.21 & 38.21 \\ \hline g.sword & 13.34 & 27.30 & 29.30 & 29.95 & 31.95 & 32.60 & 36.60\\ \hline g.axe & 13.13 & 26.21 & 29.41 & 30.62 & 32.62 & 33.82 & 37.82\\ \hline \end{array}

It looks like the only notable turn away from dual wielding occurs at level 5, before Rage damage increases at level 9 cause dual wielding to pretty much run away with things. I found it also interesting that the great axe begins to outshine the great sword fairly early on, which is contrary to conventional wisdom and it manages to pull ahead dual-wielding for a bit at 13th level.

Level 2

  • Rage Damage +2
  • Advantage on all attack rolls

Dual Wielding

  • First Attack: 1d6+6=9.5 dmg
  • Second Attack: 1d6+2=5.5 dmg
  • Crit chance for 2 attacks: 18.55%; therefore additional damage is 0.65 damage per round (DPR)
  • Overall DPR: 15.65 dmg

Great Weapons

Great Sword:

First attack:

  • 2d6+6=13.0 dmg
  • Crit chance for 1 attack: 9.75%; therefore additional damage is 0.34 DPR
  • Overall DPR: 13.34 dmg

Great Axe:

  • First attack: 1d12+6=12.5 dmg
  • Crit chance for 1 attack: 9.75%; therefore additional damage is 0.63 DPR
  • Overall DPR: 13.13 dmg

Level 5

  • Rage damage +2
  • Extra attack feature gained

Dual Wielding

  • First Attack: 1d6+6=9.5 dmg
  • Second Attack: 1d6+6=9.5 dmg
  • Third Attack: 1d6+2=5.5 dmg
  • Crit chance for 3 attacks: 26.50%; therefore additional damage is 0.93 DPR
  • Overall DPR: 25.43 dmg

Great Weapons

Great Sword:

  • First attack: 2d6+6=13.0 dmg
  • Second attack: 2d6+6=13.0 dmg
  • Crit chance for 2 attacks: 18.55%; therefore additional damage is 1.30 DPR
  • Overall DPR: 27.30 dmg

Great Axe:

  • First attack: 1d12+6=12.5 dmg
  • Second attack: 1d12+6=12.5 dmg
  • Crit chance for 1 attack: 18.55%; therefore additional damage is 1.21 DPR
  • Overall DPR: 26.21 dmg

Level 9

  • Rage damage +3
  • Extra attack
  • Brutal critical (1 die)

Dual Wielding

  • First Attack: 1d6+7=10.5 dmg
  • Second Attack: 1d6+7=10.5 dmg
  • Third Attack: 1d6+3=6.5 dmg
  • Crit chance for 3 attacks: 26.50%; therefore additional damage is 1.86 DPR
  • Overall DPR: 29.36 dmg

Great Weapons

Great Sword:

  • First attack: 2d6+7=14.0 dmg
  • Second attack: 2d6+7=14.0 dmg
  • Crit chance for 2 attacks: 18.55%; therefore additional damage is 1.30 DPR
  • Overall DPR: 29.30 dmg

Great Axe:

  • First attack: 1d12+7=13.5 dmg
  • Second attack: 1d12+7=13.5 dmg
  • Crit chance for 1 attack: 18.55%; therefore additional damage is 2.41 DPR
  • Overall DPR: 29.41 dmg

Level 13

  • Rage damage +3
  • Extra attack
  • Brutal critical (2 dice)

Dual Wielding

  • First Attack: 1d6+7=10.5 dmg
  • Second Attack: 1d6+7=10.5 dmg
  • Third Attack: 1d6+3=6.5 dmg
  • Crit chance for 3 attacks: 26.50%; therefore additional damage is 2.78 DPR
  • Overall DPR: 30.28 dmg

Great Weapons

Great Sword:

  • First attack: 2d6+7=14.0 dmg
  • Second attack: 2d6+7=14.0 dmg
  • Crit chance for 2 attacks: 18.55%; therefore additional damage is 1.95 DPR
  • Overall DPR: 29.95 dmg

Great Axe:

  • First attack: 1d12+7=13.5 dmg
  • Second attack: 1d12+7=13.5 dmg
  • Crit chance for 1 attack: 18.55%; therefore additional damage is 3.62 DPR
  • Overall DPR: 30.62 dmg

Level 16

  • Rage damage +4
  • Extra attack
  • Brutal critical (2 dice)

Dual Wielding

  • First Attack: 1d6+8=11.5 dmg
  • Second Attack: 1d6+8=11.5 dmg
  • Third Attack: 1d6+4=7.5 dmg
  • Crit chance for 3 attacks: 26.50%; therefore additional damage is 2.78 DPR
  • Overall DPR: 33.28 dmg

Great Weapons

Great Sword:

  • First attack: 2d6+8=15.0 dmg
  • Second attack: 2d6+8=15.0 dmg
  • Crit chance for 2 attacks: 18.55%; therefore additional damage is 1.95 DPR
  • Overall DPR: 31.95 dmg

Great Axe:

  • First attack: 1d12+8=14.5 dmg
  • Second attack: 1d12+8=14.5 dmg
  • Crit chance for 1 attack: 18.55%; therefore additional damage is 3.62 DPR
  • Overall DPR: 32.62 dmg

Level 17

  • Rage damage +4
  • Extra attack
  • Brutal critical (3 dice)

Dual Wielding

  • First Attack: 1d6+8=11.5 dmg
  • Second Attack: 1d6+8=11.5 dmg
  • Third Attack: 1d6+4=7.5 dmg
  • Crit chance for 3 attacks: 26.50%; therefore additional damage is 3.71 DPR
  • Overall DPR: 34.21 dmg

Great Weapons

Great Sword:

  • First attack: 2d6+8=15.0 dmg
  • Second attack: 2d6+8=15.0 dmg
  • Crit chance for 2 attacks: 18.55%; therefore additional damage is 2.60 DPR
  • Overall DPR: 32.60 dmg

Great Axe:

  • First attack: 1d12+8=14.5 dmg
  • Second attack: 1d12+8=14.5 dmg
  • Crit chance for 1 attack: 18.55%; therefore additional damage is 4.82 DPR
  • Overall DPR: 33.82 dmg

Level 20

  • Rage damage +4
  • Extra attack
  • Brutal critical (3 dice)
  • Increase Strength by 4

Dual Wielding

  • First Attack: 1d6+10=13.5 dmg
  • Second Attack: 1d6+10=13.5 dmg
  • Third Attack: 1d6+4=7.5 dmg
  • Crit chance for 3 attacks: 26.50%; therefore additional damage is 3.71 DPR
  • Overall DPR: 38.21 dmg

Great Weapons

Great Sword:

  • First attack: 2d6+10=17.0 dmg
  • Second attack: 2d6+10=17.0 dmg
  • Crit chance for 2 attacks: 18.55%; therefore additional damage is 2.60 DPR
  • Overall DPR: 36.60 dmg

Great Axe:

  • First attack: 1d12+10=16.5 dmg
  • Second attack: 1d12+10=16.5 dmg
  • Crit chance for 1 attack: 18.55%; therefore additional damage is 4.82 DPR
  • Overall DPR: 37.82 dmg
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  • \$\begingroup\$ You list G.axe doing less damage on level 13 than on L9 \$\endgroup\$ – András Sep 11 '17 at 17:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ You do not take into account that you can crit multiple times in a turn. You list the chance to score at least one crit. \$\endgroup\$ – Szega Sep 16 '17 at 17:55
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Szega You'll have to elaborate, because I believe I did account for that. The chance to crit was evaluated based upon the chance for each attack. The crit chance for a round with 1 attack was compared to rounds that have 2 and 3 attacks and the odds of a successful crit increases accordingly. While it's possible for any round to have multiple crits, which would increase that single round's damage, there can also be rounds without any crits and thus providing 0 additional damage, which evens things out to provide the stated averages. \$\endgroup\$ – Pyrotechnical Sep 18 '17 at 16:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ I understand that the original character does not have the Great Weapon Master feat, however in the interest of a full comparison, I believe it would be interesting to see the gap; +10 damage / hit is rather brutal. It is not quite clear how to model the penalty (-5 AR), since hitting was not modeled here. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Apr 14 at 12:28

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